Irene Vega

“I grew up in the town where Cesar Chavez passed away in his sleep on April 23, 1993. That town is called San Luis and it is in the southwestern part of Arizona, right on the U.S.-Mexico border. When Cesar Chavez passed in 1993, San Luis had only about 4,000 residents. Almost all of these residents, then as now, were Mexican people—either immigrants or descendants of Mexican immigrants who found themselves in the borderlands of the United States through migration or conquest. Many of the residents of San Luis worked the agricultural fields of the region, while their children got an education in schools that bordered those fields, fields that blossomed a variety of leafy vegetables but mostly lettuce, the region’s staple. I was one of those kids. When I was in junior high we ran “the mile” around the perimeter of those very lettuce fields, a task that could be hazardous (in addition to annoying) because the ground was sometimes muddy from messy irrigation jobs and always uneven from the deep tire imprints left by the massive buses that transported laborers there at the crack of dawn and back to their vehicles at dusk or later.

Cesar Chavez had been born in Yuma, Arizona just thirty miles up the road from San Luis and where I went to high school. His grandfather had immigrated from Mexico in the early 1900s and established a successful farm and country store in the Yuma area. This allowed him to send for his wife and their eight children—among them was Cesar Chavez’s father. The family was not rich, but they lived comfortably in Yuma until the Great Depression when they lost everything and became migrant farmworkers. Like many of the residents of San Luis do to this day, the Chavez family moved up and down western part of the United States, following the agricultural growing season from Yuma to places like Salinas and San Jose, California. This is how Cesar Chavez, a Mexican American kid from a small town in Arizona, became the famed labor leader that we honor on March 31. It was through his own family’s experience that Cesar Chavez became aware of the plight that farmworkers endured as they picked vegetables under arduous conditions and with few rights or protections. Chavez went on to become an organizer and eventually co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with another inspirational leader, Dolores Huerta. That organization is now known as the United Farm Workers (UFW) and it has been advocating for farmworker rights since its founding in the early 1960s.

San Luis, Arizona has experienced a great deal of growth since Cesar Chavez passed there in the 1990s. It was one of the fastest growing cities or towns in Arizona in the decade that followed Chavez’s death and today it boasts a population of over 35,000 people. The agricultural industry still dominates the region, but another industry has grown alongside it and now employs many of the children of Mexican immigrants who once worked the fields. That industry is the immigration industrial complex, a web of privatized correctional facilitates and immigration detention centers that dot the region.

In my research, I returned to the U.S.-Mexico border region after years of living elsewhere, and studied the immigration industrial complex in towns like San Luis, Arizona where it is omnipresent both as a threat and as an attractive employer. I interviewed almost 100 immigration agents, most of them were Mexican Americans who grew up along the border regions they policed as agents of the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In Bordering on Indifference: Race and Morality in Immigration Enforcement (Under Contract with Princeton University Press) I tell the story of how these agents come into the work, how they are trained and socialized once on the job, and how that training and socialization impacts the way they reconcile its many moral and racial tensions. Through the experiences of Latina/o immigration agents I show how bureaucracies triumph over individual subjectivities and even social group memberships, producing indifference and perpetuating exclusion through law and process.

There are so many different thoughts that come to mind as I reflect on Cesar Chavez’s legacy considering my own research and our current political context. For one, I am encouraged by the power of organizing and by the potential of forging collective identities to resist various forms of structural oppression. At the same time, I am reminded that solidarity, whether it be along racial/ethnic or other lines of affinity, is not to be taken for granted as inevitable—especially when the power of the state pulls in a different direction. So, as we honor the memory of Cesar Chavez in times of great strife and change, I want to end with the words of the famed organizer and remind us all: ¡Si Se Puede!”


Irene Vega is an assistant professor of sociology at UC Irvine. Her broad areas of expertise are Latinx sociology, educational inequality, international migration, and the sociology of law. Her research has been published in Social Problems, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and American Behavioral Scientist, among other venues. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA.


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